The False Narratives of the iPad

As a dedicated iPad user (who forgot his MacBook even existed after the iPad 2 came out in 2011) I’ve noticed some amusing trends and fundamental misconceptions about the totality of the iPad experience as filtered through a large portion of the iPad Pro reviews that have come out recently.

Let’s start with the headlines:

“Why the Apple iPad Pro Won’t Replace Your Laptop” — recode.net

“The iPad Pro can’t replace your laptop totally, even for a tablet lover” — The Verge

“iPad Pro review: Apple’s laptop killer?” — The Telegraph

“A killer creative canvas with laptop-replacement dreams” — c|net

Um, newsflash to the uninformed: the iPad replacing the laptop isn’t a dream. It’s a reality. The iPad has been replacing the laptop since its inception in 2010. Tablets represents a third of the PC industry now. That doesn’t happen without the iPad exploding into the consumer market space and replacing laptops. Just so you know.

But let’s not confuse “replacing laptops” with replacing the utility of a laptop. Those are two entirely different things. The iPad isn’t trying to do the latter. Nor should it. Heck, not even laptops can replace certain types of laptops. Each personal computing device out there brings its own specific skill set to fit various consumer needs. And that’s what the iPad does. It offers a unique set of qualities that are pulling people away from the old paradigm of personal computing into a new one: where ease of use, a surprising level of performance, a superior reading experience and longer battery life trumps power and complexity. Which is to say: there is a sizable and significant subset of PC users out there who never really needed or wanted a laptop in the first place. For many, the iPad is for them. And I’m one of them.

Here’s why:

Action at a Distance vs. Flexibility

Compared to the iPad, the laptop is downright standoffish — there is nothing personal-computery. about it. You place it on your lap — because, you know, it’s called a laptop — and it promptly turns your lap into a bonfire, so the fan kicks in to cool off that powerful PC chip, and now your laptop sounds like it wants to take off like a helicopter. In contrast, you place the unassuming iPad on your lap in any orientation you wish (because the screen adjusts to the way you hold it) and the iPad feels relatively cool and serenely quiet. You write, you scroll, you read, and then you realize: the iPad is more for the lap than a laptop.

How a Superior Reading Experience Opens New Doors

I have never really come across a device that pulls you in so deeply into whatever content you’re reading. The experience is fully immersive. This struck me like a thunderbolt when I first used the iPad to browse the internet. I was holding the iPad in portrait mode as my search results scrolled before my eyes in a beautifully framed river of long, vertical text that took me aback. Holy crap, I realized. THIS IS WHAT THE INTERNET IS SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE! The iPad was showing me the World Wide Web’s true form. Up until then I had never really thought about it. When I went back to my laptop, it suddenly felt like a myopic lab instrument, only able to sample the World Wide Web in viewfinder-like cross sections. The iPad Pro makes this difference even more stark as this was the first thing I tested when I went to the Apple Store recently. Surfing the web is simply glorious on that large, beautiful screen — but it’s absolutely amazing in portrait mode. In comparison, surfing the web on a laptop is actually quite sad.

What’s Going On?

As far as I can tell, there are three main reasons why reading on the iPad feels so dynamic: the high quality display, the form factor, and the 4:3 aspect ratio. It is the latter — the 4:3 aspect ratio — which is the most unsung and most underestimated aspect of the iPad. It is the foundation for why the multitouch interface feels so intimate. Case in point: when I bought the original iPad, I fancied myself writing some of my fiction on it. In particular, I figured it would be a great device to use while traveling, hoping to avoid lugging my laptop onto an airplane. But first I had to know if I could even write on the iPad. So while at home, I grabbed a short story that I needed to rewrite and ported it into Pages on the iPad. This was a serious effort: a 3-hour writing session, iPad only. Needless to say, it was awkward at first, and after many false starts, I finally just laid the thing flat down on the desk and starting writing. That’s when things started to click. Not bad. Then I spun the tablet in portrait mode, still flat on its back, and continued to work. I began selecting words with my finger, then sentences, and then entire swaths of text as I grew more confident, moving this chunk over there, and smoothing out that passage over here, and all the while the text rippled under the careful advance of my finger. I couldn’t help but notice how eerily accurate and responsive the screen was to my touch, but then it hit me: I was actually sculpting! I was moving and shaping prose with my own hands!

Now, how friggin’ cool is that? For the first time since I had left pen and paper, the physical act of writing suddenly deemed itself to be as personal and close as the writing itself.

Clearly, this was a new species of computer. I had to know: what else could this thing do? But more importantly: how was it going to make me feel? Was it going to continue to remove barriers between tool and task? And, oh man, could I actually do all my work on this thing?

Thus, began my adventure. And, no, it wasn’t all peaches and cream because here’s the thing: the iPad’s great differentiating feature is not just about touch itself — aka inputting information with your finger. It’s also about where multitouch lives; and the multitouch interface is more at home in the horizontal plane rather than the vertical. This institutes a completely different paradigm for accomplishing computer-oriented tasks. What one might do on a laptop, one does quite differently on an iPad. To appreciate the full scope of this difference, however, takes some very serious effort. And time. And patience. And will. Different ways of doing things requires different ways of thinking, and oftentimes I found the largest stumbling block I encountered was not the iPad itself, but the dogmatic protocol of the PC user experience that I carried with me. Yet after each lesson learned on the iPad, I not only found delight and inspiration more often than I found frustration, I was also beginning to suspect that I had found the future as well. When the iPad 2 rolled out, the future had arrived.

Besides being a writer, I’m a stock investor; that’s how I make my moolah. With the iPad 2, all the intensive spreadsheet work that I generated when I worked at American Express I could generate in the iOS Numbers app. I am also a creative consultant for an independent film company in Brooklyn, NY. So recording and taking copious handwritten notes at auditions and production meetings with the iPad 2 became habit. Project and timeline management tasks: done. Developmental editing a novel: done. (Doing this without Microsoft was one of the greatest joys of my life.) Whiteboard conceptualizing and mind mapping: done. Storyboarding for films: done. Photographic journaling: done. Stock research, interactive charts and real-time quotes: done, done, and done.

And my MacBook? Toast.

Multitasking Modes: Passive & Active

There seems to be a ghostly familiarity between today’s iPad Pro reviews and the original iPad reviews of yesteryear. Did you know the iPad Pro does not have a USB port? Yeah, neither did I. That’s a shocker. Next thing they’ll be telling us is that the iPad Pro doesn’t support Flash or have swappable batteries.

Some iPad Pro reviewers brought up a good point about multitasking though: even with split view the iPad Pro cannot view multiple documents from the same app. iOS itself lacks that granularity. I think it’s a fair point because there’s nothing in the iOS visual design language that precludes it from handling such a task. Yet it can’t do it. Does that mean multitasking on the iPad is kaput? Not from where I sit. I wish iOS had this ability, yes, but just because I can’t multitask in one particular fashion doesn’t mean I can’t multitask in another. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the iPad after all these years is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I’m interested in exploring a more nuanced point, however: to the extent that multitasking exists on the iPad, what does that really mean?

I bring this up because most iPad Pro reviews took a top-down approach when it came to discussing multitasking on the iPad. They covered split view and slide over first and then gave a cursory glance to the other multitasking features — or not. This makes sense. Most reviewers have to adhere to a word count, while others probably lack a nuanced understanding of the other multitasking features anyway — or both. I would guess both since a surprising number of those who did bother to drill down to the other multitasking features fumbled it badly. I mean, seriously, who double clicks the home button anymore?

So I would like to add my voice to the running dialogue that is “multitasking on the iPad”, and I would like to discuss it from the bottom up. After all, I’m an iPad user who only has a first generation (2013) iPad Air at my disposal. Does the fact that I don’t have split view suddenly turn my multitasking world into a barren wasteland? Is slide over even useful without split view?

Well, to properly frame my answers, I think it’s best to share a little background: I employ two modes of multitasking on the iPad: passive and active. These modes are not mutually exclusive. There’s usually a mix. Passive use of apps was something I was able to do about 50% of the time while using iOS 8, but iOS 9 has enabled me to passively multitask with abandon.

Passive Mode: the New UI

In IOS 9, the fast app switcher is actually a misnomer. Sure, you can switch to other apps but you’d be missing the larger point. At the WWDC keynote when Craig Federighi unveiled iOS 9's new UI design for fast app switching, he called it, “Gorgeous.” Um, yeah, that’s one word for it. How about functional? From this dedicated iPad user’s eyes what I saw was a gorgeous stack of easily readable windows that flowed effortlessly at a moment’s touch. That’s right, as many windows as I could ever want filled with information that can easily be read without having to reenter any of the respective apps. I call this passive access. It is useful when you need to visually access data from different sources to feed your workflow. Let’s say I’m in the Numbers app and I need info from the Quickcharts app, I four-finger swipe up (in lieu of double clicking the home button), and then scroll to locate Quickcharts, I read its preview window and then single click the home button to snap me back into Numbers. When I actually do need to actively go into an app from the app switcher, I tap on its window, get whatever info I need, and then with one gesture (four-finger swipe to the right) I’m right back to where I started.

Active Mode: Folders Means Focus

Another way I multitask is by using folders. I cluster apps into folders when I need to actively plow through 10+ apps to get my routine tasks done. How are folders useful? Simple: when I open an app from a folder and then quit it by using the four-finger pinch gesture, I’m brought right back to the open folder where the next relevant app is waiting for me — no need to search the home screen or scroll through a deep stack of windows in the app switcher. I simply four-finger pinch to leave one app and then tap to open another. Pinch, tap. Pinch, tap. It’s a quick, tight rhythm that immerses me into whatever app I want. When you combine this with sliding apps into view from the left and right (using four-finger swipe side-to-side), you’re cruising.

What’s overlooked about folders vs. the home screen is that quitting out of an app to a folder is much faster than quitting to the home screen. In general, quitting to the home screen is relatively slow because of the iOS animation, so it’s next to impossible to replicate the tight rhythm that one demands for multitasking.

Passive Mode: A Poor Man’s Split View

Another wrinkle with the new iOS 9 redesign is that I can view apps side by side — in a manner of speaking — while I’m in fast app switcher mode. This is not the actively linked “side-by-side” orientation like split view, of course, because the windows of each app are separate and stacked, but quite often the information in one app is viewable in such a way that it coincides nicely with the information of the app beside it. Effectively, with the slightest manipulation of my finger, I can view each app’s information side by side. I employ this method constantly; it’s quite handy when I need to simultaneously compare two sets of information.

Slide Over

Slide over augments both my passive and active modes. At times it’s more suitable than using the four-finger swipe side to side, but mostly it works better in combination with it. It’s particularly useful when I need to share info from one app to two other apps. As long as I have one app in slider over mode, I can just keep swiping to the right to jump between the other two apps. The rhythm is pretty straightforward: slide over — tap — swipe, slide over — tap — swipe. Handy. But here’s where slide over really surprised me: spreadsheets. For the most part when I open a Numbers spreadsheet, I only need to access a specific portion of it — a particular row or column. I don’t need to see the whole shebang. Slide over affords me this focus. I actually prefer adding or editing data this way. Hmm. Didn’t see that coming. Once again, iOS finds a way to help me focus on the task at hand. Here’s why: Apple’s redesign of the navigation UI for Numbers while viewed in slide over is excellent. I can fully navigate the Numbers app while it takes up only a sliver of the screen. It’s bizarre and quite counterintuitive in a real cool way.

Some Thoughts on Split View

I’ve spent about two hours on various iPad Pros in the Apple Store, trying to determine how accretive split view will be for my multitasking style. In short: very nice! I can already see how in certain cases I would probably graduate my slide over mode into split view mode, and how split view would incorporate very nicely into my multitasking folder scheme. But do I need it? Well, let me put it this way: I need the iPad Pro itself more than I need split view. The iPad Pro would enhance my entire multitasking process even if it didn’t come with split view. After all, iOS lacks the aforementioned killer feature of viewing multiple documents from the same app; this is obviously low hanging fruit that iOS has yet to deliver to the iPad. Until it does, split view is more a want than a need, as its promise is more exciting to me than its actual function.

Other Wrinkles & Features

I haven’t even discussed how I use slide over to promote apps in the app switcher, or how I use four-finger side swipe to peek into apps, or how I use Siri to open websites and apps, or how I execute two different mathematical calculations utilizing two separate calculators without ever leaving the app I’m in, or how Spotlight is useful in a pinch — and the clarity and usefulness of the “back to” feature. I utilize all these features in a wide array of contextual workflows. Reasonable minds may disagree on the true depth and utility of the iPad’s multitasking feature set, but it would be nice if the level of discourse was actually reasonable — seeking to address the nuanced array of the iPad’s multitasking abilities instead of pigeonholing them into one or two features. This myopia (or ignorance?) serves no one.

Ok, let’s move on. Here are some more bad attitudes:

“For real work, it’s all about attaching Apple’s $170 Smart Keyboard . . .”

— Wall Street Journal

”. . . a keyboard is essential to making the iPad a computer replacement.”

— Cult of Mac

“. . . you’ll want to buy a physical keyboard. . . . Otherwise, you’re effectively buying a crippled device . . .

— IBN Live

Wow. That. Is. Complete. And. Utter. Bullshit.

I am currently writing a novel. On the iPad. 100,000 words in all. On the iPad. On the nonfiction side, I routinely issue reports to my clients, anywhere from 2,800 words to 10,000 words. I write proposals. I write extended emails. All on the virtual keyboard, and all on the iPad. This bears repeating: I HAVE NEVER USED A PHYSICAL KEYBOARD WHILE WRITING ON THE IPAD. EVER. NO EXCEPTIONS. I HAVE NEVER EVEN OWNED A PHYSICAL KEYBOARD. Like most people, I thought I would purchase one when I got the original iPad, but after typing on the virtual keyboard for a couple of weeks, it became crystal clear that what the iPhone had been making implicit, the iPad was making explicit: the physical keyboard is a vestigial limb. Or more to the point: the physical keyboard is now a piece of glass. It has taken smartphone owners close to a decade (kicking and screaming) to accept this fact about their pocket-sized computers, thus it is reasonable to expect it will take much longer for tablet owners to adapt to a reality that kids and teenagers have already grasped. As for me, it took me about 3 months of full bore engagement with the virtual keyboard to fall in love with it. I have several different typing rhythms depending on mood, intent, and screen orientation — I enjoy both portrait and landscape modes for completely different reasons. Why did I persist? Because slapping an appendage on something as beautifully formed as an iPad felt like going backwards, not forwards. Since I was purchasing a tablet, I figured I should use it as a tablet. And the benefits were heady: lose 50% of the laptop’s form factor yet get 100% of my work done, and I could work — anywhere! — for as long as I pleased (12 to 16 hours between charges). This was all new territory, and frankly, it felt surreal. I was forming new habits, new mental muscles, and the more accomplished I became, the more “at one” I felt with the device. This is how I grokked the iPad. Heavy duty typing on the iPad for me is a warm act; perhaps it’s the feel of the glass, or the soft, pitter-patter sounds my fingertips make when I’m tapping away — my hands hovering over the glass as if I’m playing the piano. My physical approach to typing on the iPad does indeed make me feel like a musician — a keyboardist, if you will. Even though I’m producing, my body feels like it’s playing. And that is, at heart, the essence of the iPad: where the very act of producing work feels like play. This is many an iPad owner’s private delight. It has certainly been mine.

So here’s the deal: the iPad didn’t replace the laptop for us dedicated iPad users — it freed us from the laptop. And believe me when I say this: we are not looking for the iPad to be more like a laptop — lord, no! What a depressing thought — we are looking for the iPad to be more of an iPad and that’s what the promise of the iPad Pro brings to us. And if being more of an iPad helps the iPad Pro replace more laptops, then so be it. But folks like me don’t care about that. All we want to know is how is the iPad Pro a better iPad? It’s obviously much larger, but did Apple maintain its 4:3 aspect ratio? That’s crucial. If so, how does that play out on the larger screen? The screen itself has been reengineered — both for the pencil and for human touch. In terms of human touch, how does that play out in terms of response and sensitivity when you’re typing on the virtual keyboard or editing large swaths of text in a 50-page manuscript with your fingers? Given the tablet’s larger size, what new keystroke options does the virtual keyboard offer you when the Pro is in portrait mode versus landscape mode? And so on.

Of the over 15 reviews of the iPad Pro that I wearily trudged through, I came across 3 reviewers who bothered to recognize that the Pro’s virtual keyboard was just as new and functionally redesigned as Apple’s new hardware keyboard. That’s pathetic.

The luminaries of the technorati were especially woeful in this department. Not that I begrudge their efforts for reviewing the Smart Keyboard — it’s only common sense that they would. That’s their job. But they forgot — or completely ignored — a reality that doesn’t seem to suit them: that “typing on an iPad” actually means typing on the iPad; the virtual keyboard is a major and distinct feature of the device, and if they can’t deal with such a simple fact, then they should pass on the review to someone who’s actually qualified to review the iPad as an iPad.

Whither the Physical Keyboard

Or should I say wither? For years styluses have been made for the iPad. They’ve been mediocre. Now here comes Apple’s Pencil, and it instantly elevates the stylus experience on the iPad to an elegant level. It’s a game changer. Concurrently, physical keyboards have been made for the iPad for years (including Apple’s own keyboard for the original iPad). They’ve been mediocre. Now here comes Apple’s latest attempt, the Smart Keyboard cover and it elevates the physical keyboard experience on the iPad to an impressively — well, mediocre level. Reviews have been mixed and it’s far from a game changer. Why is this? Apple had a running start with their first iPad physical keyboard in 2010, yet this is the best Apple could muster after all these years? Well, for those who refuse to see the writing on the wall, the answer is obvious: physical keyboards and the multitouch interface mix about as well as oil and water. The only keyboard in existence that is truly optimized for the iPad lies within the sheet of its own glass.

Make no mistake: the optional Smart Keyboard cover for the iPad Pro is Apple’s concession to the past. It is not Apple’s vision of the future — the iPad Pro is. The smart connector is. The Pencil is. But the physical keyboard? No way. In fact, we are watching the physical keyboard atrophy before our very eyes, becoming more and more flimsy as it tries desperately to adapt to a tablet form factor that never needed it. Eventually, it will adapt itself out of existence and tablets will be used as tablets, not faux laptops.

And, finally, I’d like to address a false narrative that actually seems to be petering out.

Apple’s Own Toy Story: Run Silent, Run Fast

Remember when people thought electric vehicles were no more useful than golf carts? Well, what Tesla did for electric cars, the iPad has done for personal computing. Your computer no longer has to sound like a race car in order to go from 0 to 60. The iPad does that without uttering a peep. To the ears of those who are immutably attached to the PC-era equation of power = performance, this stealthy, Jedi-like capability of the iPad makes the device itself not worthy of notice, or to the extent that it is noticed, the iPad must be a toy. After all, real work requires real power, and real power = real speed = real heat = real, real noisy fans! This attitude is poorly tuned to the reality at hand. A reality that the iPad has always made implicit, but what the iPad Pro makes explicit: the era of low-power, high performance is here. And it is only getting started. Now everybody needs to catch up — the consumer, yes, but especially the stalwarts of the PC industry whom have been caught somewhat flat-footed.

So in closing . . .

You know, it’s funny, days before I even knew that I was going to write this piece, I was kvetching to my wife about the dearth of decent iPad Pro reviews, especially as it related to the Pro’s revamped virtual keyboard. My wife shrugged. “That’s because they’re too old, Rob,” she said. Which made me laugh, of course, because I’m 51 years old.